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Aleppo Residents Turn to Creativity to Defy Siege

After nearly five months of total siege, residents in opposition-held Eastern Aleppo are relying on their own creative inventions, such as batteries powered by bicycles, to carry on with their daily lives.

Written by Karam al-Masri Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, search for victims amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following a government forces airstrike on the rebel-held neighborhood of Bustan al-Basha in Aleppo on October 4, 2016.AFP/Thaer Mohammed

ALEPPO, Syria – Cigarettes stuffed with grape leaves instead of tobacco, gardens on bombed-out rooftops, and batteries powered by rusted bicycles: In Syria’s besieged Eastern Aleppo, necessity is the mother of invention.

More than 250,000 people have been under a government siege in the rebel-held side of the northern city since July, without access to aid, food, fuel, medicine or even cigarettes.

The blockade has sparked severe shortages and exorbitant prices for the few basic goods available, forcing residents to find innovative ways to cope.

“We’ve been forced back into the Stone Age,” said Khaled Kurdiyah, who lives in Aleppo’s eastern district of Karam al-Jabal.

Kurdiyah is the mastermind behind “the can” – a metal container outfitted with a fan to create a highly controlled wood fire that acts as a substitute for a gas stove.

“I punched a hole in a used ghee can that we were going to throw away and fixed a fan on it,” he explains to AFP.

The 25-year-old breaks up a few pieces of wood and tosses them into the dented container, lighting a fire and crowning it with a teapot.

“This way, we can direct the flames from the wood in a certain direction to create an even bigger fire while rationing our firewood,” he said.

Pedaling Power

Like many basic goods, gasoline and diesel are increasingly valuable in Aleppo’s east, where state-run electricity is mostly cut off.

Some residents have developed a system to melt scraps of plastic into fuel, which is then used to run electricity generators.

But the process can produce unexpected explosions and be deadly.

So Abu Rahmo has developed a cleaner form of energy, using the pedalling power of residents.

In his workshop in the Ansari neighbourhood, the 48-year-old mechanic welds a dynamo – the small generator used to charge car batteries – on to the back of an old bicycle.

“We have neither electricity nor generators … So I take the dynamos out of cars and fix them on to bicycles to charge car batteries,” he said.

The batteries can then be used to turn on lights, charge phones, and “even power washing machines,” Abu Rahmo said.

The balding Aleppan sells one bicycle every few days at a price of about 10,000 Syrian pounds ($20).

Once the sale has been confirmed, he carries the contraption to the buyer’s house for a demonstration of how it works and any final adjustments.

A lanky teenager slips his sandaled feet into the pedals of a recently sold bicycle, pumping until the attached light bulb flickers on.

‘Worth more than gold’

Just a few streets away in the Kalasseh district, 28-year-old Amir Sendeh unlocks a metal door, disappearing into a small outdoor courtyard.

He checks on a handful of scrawny chickens – invaluable in a place like Aleppo – before shuffling up a flight of stairs to his roof.

There, white foam boxes are organised in neat rows, some of them lush with bright green sprouts.

“I bought some seeds and planted them on the roof of my house,” says Sendeh, caressing the plants.

Since government forces surrounded Aleppo in July, food items have become hard to find or prohibitively expensive, or both.

The price of sugar has gone up nearly tenfold to 3,500 pounds ($7) per kilo, and salad ingredients like parsley or tomatoes are at least five times more costly than before the siege.

So some residents of Aleppo have planted small rooftop gardens to harvest their own food.

“Right now, I’ve got parsley, radishes, and soon I’ll have some spinach and chard,” Sendeh said proudly.

In moments of calm, residents of east Aleppo sit along bombed-out streets and deftly roll cigarettes, but instead of tobacco, they stuff them with dried, shredded grape leaves.

“A pack of cigarettes is worth more than gold these days, and the price goes up every day,” said Ahmad Oweija, 43.

Residents now refer to real cigarettes stuffed with tobacco as “foreign.” They sell for about 2,000 Syrian pounds ($4) each, he said.

Before the siege, that was the price for a whole pack of 20.

Oweija sells hand-rolled cigarettes filled with vine leaves that he picks, dries out, then grinds up in the Bustan al-Qasr district.

If he has real tobacco to spare, he sprinkles a small amount in each cigarette – just for taste.

With real cigarettes so rare and costly, they even serve as their own form of currency, Oweija claims.

“I know people who have bought houses and cars for a few packs of foreign cigarettes.”

This article was originally published by AFP and is reprinted here with permission.

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